No Place Like Home
Torn from their families and placed in a government institution, three young Aboriginal girls escape and walk 1500 miles across the Australian outback to return home in Rabbit-Proof Fence. Incredibly, this is a true story, so there are no ruby slippers to click, no advice available from a good witch, no send-off from a cheering Emerald City crowd. Nevertheless, just like the fictional heroine in The Wizard of Oz, Molly, Daisie, and Gracie must call upon their courage and determination in order to find their way back to the people they love.
In 1931, A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, becomes concerned about three spirited "half-caste" children living in Jigalong, a small depot on the edge of the Gibson Desert. Believing the Aboriginal race is dying out, Neville sees children like this as his special responsibility. He has established settlements across the state where half-caste children are taken and prepared for a life as domestic servants or farm laborers. Neville thinks heís doing the right thing by giving orders for the removal of Molly, Gracie and Daisy, whose white fathers once worked on the rabbit-proof fence running through Jigalong.
After doing considerable research for his role, Branagh says he found Neville quite interesting. "He had what seemed to be an admiration for the Aboriginal race and yet he was the man behind a program which had both a profound and negative effect," explains Branagh, who portrays the consummate bureaucrat not as a monster, but as a misguided human being. Because Iíve seen this Shakespearean actor go over-the-top a couple of times (Frankenstein may be the best, or worst, example), Iím pleased he held back here. Branaghís Neville is marvelously understated and utterly convincing.
In Rabbit-Proof Fence, Neville and company are no match for Molly Craig (Everlyn Sampi), the oldest of the three girls in question. Molly persuades her younger sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and their cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) to escape from the institution where theyíve been placed and join her in the long walk home. Not sure about how to find their way, the girls learn that the rabbit-proof fence in Jigalong is part of a barrier bisecting the whole length of Australia from north to south. Dorothy Gale may have "followed the yellow-brick road," but Molly, Daisy, and Gracie must "follow the rabbit-proof fence" to reach their destination.
I donít remember when Iíve seen youngsters appear as natural on screen as Sampi, Sansbury, and Monaghan do in this unique movie. All three are real finds Ė but Sampi simply radiates star-power potential. She needs no words to express Molly's strength, determination, and bravery. Itís all there in her photogenic face and in the forceful way she stands, walks, and carries Molly's weary little sister during their epic journey.
Based on a book by Doris Pilkington Garimara (Molly Craigís real-life daughter), Rabbit-Proof Fence is a dramatic tearjerker. "When I started reading the screenplay, I realized it was a very, very special story and by the end of it I was close to tears," recalls director Phillip Noyce (The Bone Collector), who returned home to Australia to make his first film there in 12 years. "With this film there is an added bonus in as much as itís telling a significant part of Australian history that by and large has been denied to us," he adds.
Because events depicted in Rabbit-Proof Fence actually happened, this powerful movie had a profound impact on me: it evoked a deep feeling of sadness about "children in distress" all over the world. While not an easy film to watch, it's a memorable one.
(Released by Miramax Films and rated "PG" for emotional thematic material.)
Read Betty Jo's interview with filmmaker Phillip Noyce.